Vergennes-area schools to talk merger with MAUSD

We’re going to need to cut $5 million out of the budget in the next four years to stay out of the (penalty) threshold. The options are becoming more limited.
— ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule

VERGENNES — In the words of Addison Northwest School District Board Member Mark Koenig at the board’s Monday meeting, ANWSD is ready to enter into “talks about talking” about cooperating with the Mount Abraham Unified School District.
Those talks could lead to a future merger of the districts.
That was the takeaway from the board’s discussion held in reaction to MAUSD Superintendent Patrick Reen’s Dec. 7 unveiling of a proposal for joint high and middle schools for the two districts, one in each of the district’s existing high schools, by the start of the 2023 school year.
Voters in both districts would need to back such a plan if it were to become a reality.
Reen’s plan also called for a joint district office in New Haven’s Beeman Academy and significant educational changes at MAUSD’s elementary level.
The major impacts in ANWSD he proposed would be a move of 6th-graders to a joint middle school at Vergennes Union High School, and of 9-12th graders to Mount Abraham Union High School. 
Vergennes Union Elementary, Ferrisburgh Central, and Addison Central schools would otherwise operate as they do now. Addison Central is now a special education hub for county 7-12th graders.
According to preliminary figures ANWSD Director of Finance and Operations Elizabeth Jennings gave to the board on Nov. 16, the districts could share roughly $3.3 million in savings by fully merging their high and middle schools and central offices.
That figure assumed eliminating about 30 teaching positions and 11 central office jobs. Jennings wrote more savings could be realized by “combining athletics and co-curricular programs.”
On Monday ANWSD board members said they were a long way from prepared to endorse such a plan, but ready to consider working with MAUSD officials.
The first task, they said, was to let their counterparts in MAUSD know they would be willing to sit down and talk about forming a merger study committee.
ANWSD Board Chairman John Stroup and board members Tom Borchert, Bill Clark and Kristina MacKulin will serve as emissaries to the MAUSD board.
Clark summed up his view of the mission: He saw it as a first step toward forming a study committee if both sides were interested.
“I think we have an obligation to have conversations with the Mount Abe district about what the parameters of a study group might even actually be,” Clark said.
He said no one should enter the process with the fixed goal of creating a merger.
“The key here is to keep as open a mind as possible to all of this. I wouldn’t even say we are talking about merger. We are just talking about solutions that could happen outside of our district and could involve another district,” Clark said.
“There are so many possibilities. I understand the Mount Abe superintendent put out a plan, but even their district hasn’t had a chance to react to that. It’s one of maybe a dozen concepts that could come to fruition.”

At the same time ANWSD cannot afford to dawdle. District officials said a fiscal “cliff” awaits in the 2022-2023 fiscal year. Due to COVID-19, state officials put in place a freeze that temporarily forgave enrollment losses, but that freeze expires after the current year, Jennings said.
That change will mean a major drop in revenue and increase in per-pupil costs without drastic cuts in programming and personnel, possibly even school closure. “FY23 is going to be terrible,” said Borchert.
Superintendent Sheila Soule also reminded the board on Monday of the district’s long-term fiscal issues.
“We’re going to need to cut $5 million out of the budget in the next four years to stay out of the (penalty) threshold,” Soule said. “The options are becoming more limited, so we have to keep that in mind, I think, to the point of there being a time sensitivity to this.”
What does a $5 million budget hole mean? In a Tuesday email Jennings said that adding about 255 pupils to the district would create that much revenue, or cutting about 40 of the district’s 190 staff members would save that much money. Another alternative would be some combination of more pupils and fewer staff members.
As Borchert said on Monday, “We need to treat this urgently.”
Still, board members were not sure how quickly things could move.
Board member Chris Kayhart said it was important to “compile a list of pros and cons for this rather than just forging ahead.” Koenig said it was hard to envision the ANWSD and MAUSD boards sitting down together before “late spring or early summer,” after a study committee had met and made progress.
MacKulin, also the Community Engagement Committee chairperson, said residents at last week’s informational forum were expecting the board to reach out to MAUSD.
“Putting a study committee together to do what we are talking about tonight was the No. 1 expectation of everyone moving forward,” MacKulin said.
In the meantime, Board Chairperson Stroup said, the district would look into its internal options.
“We still have to do due diligence as a district. There’s no guarantee of a merger,” Stroup said. “We have to figure out some possibilities internally, and we have those. We’ve been talking about them. Sheila and Elizabeth have presented some pretty good data that show not a pretty picture of staying internally. But I believe this board will still have to have those conversations.”

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